Monday, November 15, 1999

Joy School by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled, Joy School. Last June, I reviewed another little book of hers, The Pull of the Moon. That novel is about a grown woman who runs away from home, not because she is abused or unloved by her husband, not because she is unsatisfied with her adult children, but simply because she feels she has never been afforded the chance to discover who she is. That book was such a joy to read that I felt somehow that it may not deserve a review all by itself, so I included two other lovely novels about what it means to be a woman in this culture. Looking back, I realize that Pull of the Moon did deserve its own review, and that good books can be short, and they can by happy, or, at any rate, need not be unremittingly sad. Both of these books are what I call ‘quick hitters’; Berg seems to be the master of the two hundred page novel. Just right for one, long single sitting, and the two books together perfect for a long weekend of reading.

Joy School just recently came out in a paperback edition, and let me say a word here about the bargain of remaindered hardbounds. When a new paperback edition is put on the market, it is a common practice for bookstores to remainder their hard bound editions (knowing how hard they will be to sell once the paperback edition is out). The amazing thing is that the remaindered hardbacks often sell for less than half the price of the new paperback edition; such was the case with this Berg novel. I was actually carrying the paperback around the bookdstore, unable to resist any Berg novel, when I thought to check the remainders table, and sure enough, there it was for the bargain price of $3.50—considerably less than half the price of the new paperback. I often get my entire summer reading stack either by purchasing used books or remaindered hardbacks, an important consideration given the price of new books these days.

Joy School belongs in the genre of coming of age novels. What is amazing about this book is that Berg is able to say a lot about just what it means to come of age, what it means to love, by covering a very short period in one girl’s life between the end of her twelfth year and the beginning of her thirteenth. We who are a long way from our teens tend to forget just how intense life can be for such ‘children’, and we also tend to write off their loves, especially their disappointments in love, as puppy-love. Insultingly, we inform them the loss only seems important now, this early intimation of love will pale once they grow up and find the real thing. Berg reminds us forcefully that early love is very much the real thing. It can be crushing or redeeming, but in either case it is real and needs to be taken seriously.

Because I am such a fan of these coming of age stories (especially those written by women, since women seem to me to be so much more emotionally intelligent in recalling these early experiences), I have read lots of them. Of course, many of these stories, even most of them, are sad—dismally sad. Think of Barbara Goudy’s Falling Angels, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Out of Carolina; so many children abused, stilted, so many children having to parent their own parents. I have spent the last year reading and helping my very first girlfriend (now a woman in her 50’s) with her autobiographical novel, an important and wonderful book, but heart wrenching to read. Still perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever known, she was made into the girlfriend of her stepfather when she was only seven years old! The first person ever really to notice her, to ‘love’ her, he took advantage of her incredible need by raping and abusing her for the half dozen or so years until she reached puberty, and then he dropped her, cut her off from all affection, her punishment for his fears and guilt.

I bring these dismal but important stories up to make it clear that I am quite aware of just how unhappy many childhoods are, and I know we need to read these stories in spite of their sadness. We have to hear the stories of girls and women, learn over and over the price of sexism and oppression. But when the occasional happy story comes along, we need not feel guilty or lied to, we need not put aside these wonderful, if infrequent, tales. I remember from my youth being enchanted by Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (I think his best novel ever) and later by Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (which I think is her best work as well). Berg’s Joy School belongs in this group. Though this little girl loses her mother early and is raised by a caring but stern military father, and though she is never in one place long enough to really create family for herself, still she is resilient and tough and even optimistic. Her story could be one of the awful ones, for she falls in love with a young man in his early twenties, and it could well have happened that he would be or become the monster who takes advantage of the pure and innocent love that this girl directs towards him. Instead, because he really cares for her, really sees her, he responds as any adult should. He does not discount her love, does not make fun of it, but neither does he use it for some sort of sexual dalliance.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this beautiful little piece; Berg does set up some dramatic tension, and any reader sophisticated in the ways of this so often nasty world will be anxious, fearing a turn for the worst at any moment. What I loved about the book is Berg’s subtle but clear message that we can see other people if we try, that men can see beyond their genitals if they are willing, that they can refuse sexual opportunities, even sexual advances from girls and or women, without discounting or demeaning them. She shows us too that just as adults remain in so many ways the children that they were/are, so, too, children are in so many ways as perceptive and smart and ‘adult’ as their grown-up selves will be. In one passage, this young girl describes what it feels like to be attended to and taken care of by a person, to see and love the softness and warmth in a serious, grown-up man. He has just told her to button up her coat before taking her for a ride in his treasured vintage car.
He takes care of you, it is in his nature. If he came to a dying flower dropped on the street he would still move it so it wouldn’t get stepped on. I button the top button of my coat, which chokes me to death but who cares.
I love the voice of the narrator in this story. I am amazed, stunned, by Berg’s ability to adopt a convincing and consistent twelve-year-old voice without (at least to this reader) seeming trite or sentimental. The suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader that we are told is so essential to really good writing, is no effort here at all; I believe this girl, I believe in her lucidity, her goodness, her intense love, even her wisdom. I would like to have known her.

Pick up any of Berg’s novels; I think you will be glad you did.

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